This week’s spotlight looks at Joan of Arc (c. 1412 – May 30, 1431), a French folk heroine who was canonized in the twentieth century. Though not a biblical figure, Joan’s sanctity – like that of all saints – finds its roots in the Bible. For many Christians, saints are exemplars of their Christian faith who not only often died for their beliefs, but whose remains or relics are associated with miracles. Believers direct prayers to saints, look to them for intercession, healing, and protection. Many saints, like Mary Magdalene—the subject of last week’s post—are biblical figures. Early Christian martyr saints became sources for popular legends most famously collected into The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, a monk working in the thirteenth century. Saints’ stories, known as hagiographies, developed into a rich art-historical tradition, the subject of our Monday Spotlight posts.
Though not officially canonized until 1920, Joan was popularly recognized as a saint long before the twentieth century. Her popularity ebbs and flows over time and seems to reach its high points, during times of war—something one would expect for a warrior-saint.
How to Know Her: The woman who brought on the Siege of Orleans, the turning point for the French during the Hundred Years War, is most often depicted wearing her armor and carrying the standard that she held aloft during battle, which she had designed to reflect her assurance of France’s victory under God.
Where to Find Her: In the history of art, Joan of Arc has several trademark scenes. She is most often shown in battle or posed portrait-style with a battle raging on behind her or other military insignia surrounding her. She is also regularly portrayed as a peasant girl which underscores her simple upbringing and piety, a depiction that highlights her worthiness of God’s attention, akin to the Virgin Mary as she appears in childhood or Annunciation scenes.
Two iconic scenes of Joan’s life that artists overtime have depicted are her presence at the side of Charles VII at his coronation at Reims, an event that she insisted take place at the behest of her voices, and her execution at the hands of the English and their Burgundian allies. Often she is shown composed and serene during her death, typical of scenes depicting the martyrdom of saints. Idealizing a saint’s martyrdom underscores their willing acceptance of it – key to their hagiography. Records state that the Maid of Orleans was steadfast and brave throughout her entire imprisonment, torture, and inquisition, but experienced an intense, emotional breakdown as she burned at the stake.
Maid in Manhattan: For being the patron of France, Joan certainly has a presence here in the Big Apple. If you’re wandering through the bright halls that display nineteenth century European paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, you will come across this stunning imagining of the young Joan being visited, as she had claimed, by three saints – Catherine of Alexandria, Margaret of Antioch, and Michael the Archangel – in her family garden in Domremy. Painted by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884), this image was created during one of the heroine’s frequent bouts of popularity in her home country, with Joan acting as a symbol of hope during the Franco-Prussian War.
“Joan of Arc”, 1879
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
St. Joan can also be found in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Midtown. Inside of the cool haven of St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue at 51st Street is a series of
stained glass windows dedicated to Joan. Adorning the Children’s Chapel – fitting for a moral exemplar – the four windows highlight the major events of her life and are beautifully rendered to inspire contemplation or simply awe a passing visitor.
A less secreted but more off-the-beaten path location featuring a tribute to is the Joan of Arc monument in Riverside Park. When driving along Riverside Drive you’ll spot her equestrian statue amid the trees at 93rd Street. Throughout New York City there are several other monumental equestrian sculptures, erected in honor of military victors, but only this one features a female hero. The decision to depict her as thus underscores her warrior traits. Its serene location on a small strip of land overlooking the Hudson River seems to reflect her small but sacred place amid the world’s military heroes.
21st Century Heroine: Literature – Joan of Arc has reappeared on bookshelves recently, thanks to the work Nancy Goldstone. In her latest book, The Maid and the Queen: the Secret History of Joan of Arc, Goldstone deconstructs the political turmoil that fueled the Hundred Years War and the depth of Joan’s participation in France’s victory. This detailed but readable account explains the precarious, often disastrous situation in France in the fifteenth century and how one of the biggest political players of the time (who was subsequently forgotten after her death), Queen Yolande of Aragon, Charles VII’s mother-in-law, cleverly executed every possible means of winning her son-in-law back his throne from Henry VI of England. It is the story of serendipitous timing but also the careful planning and stunning bravery of two completely different women navigating within a male-dominated society.
Goldstone does not debunk the miraculous aura around Joan, but she does offer fascinating explanations as to why Joan was as effective as she was. Goldstone is brutally honest about Joan – noting, for example, that her execution had no affect whatsoever on the war, which waged on for twenty more years after her death – but she asserts quite powerfully that what made Joan of Arc remarkable were not her miraculous visions or battle strategy, but her undeniable intelligence, endurance, and strength of conviction.
Music – Leonard Cohen is one of the most prolific songwriters of all time. He penned the oft-covered ballad “Hallelujah” and recently released a new album, Old Ideas. Throughout his writing career he has frequently used biblical figures and images, but he seemed particularly intrigued by Joan of Arc when recording his 1971 album, Songs of Love and Hate. Besides talking about fighting in her army in “Last Year’s Man”, he dedicates an entire song to narrating her execution as something that came about between a very tired Joan and a very persuasive fire:
“He said, ‘I’m glad to hear you talk this way.
You know, I’ve watched you riding every day
And something in me yearns to win
Such a cold and lonesome heroine.’
‘And who are you?’ she sternly spoke to the one beneath the smoke
‘Why, I’m fire,’ he replied,
‘and I love your solitude, I love your pride.’”
“Joan of Arc” is a beautiful, haunting song that lingers like a medieval love ballad, though love’s means are dubious, perhaps even dark – as Cohen himself drawls out against plinking guitars, “must it come so cruel and oh so bright?” It’s difficult to conjure up a better phrase to sum up the brief flicker that was Joan’s amazing life and her death that has lingered throughout history like a trail of smoke.
Joan of Arc Monument, New York City
-T.C. for MOBIA